Why Historians Should Care About Black Confederates

Over the past few years, Leslie Madsen-Brooks has been working on an essay that explores the implications of the controversy surrounding black Confederates on our understanding of history in the digital age. It’s been available online as part of an open peer-review project and will soon be available, along with other essays, in Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2013).  The author steers her reader through the evolution of the black Confederate narrative and what it tells us about how history is being done, who is writing it, changing assumptions about authority resulting from this digital turn, and why professional historians ought to care.

This is the first scholarly essay that I know of that takes this controversy seriously. I am putting the finishing touches on an essay that also explores some of these issues for an upcoming issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. The author gives us quite a bit to think about in this essay. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve experienced a cold reception from fellow Civil War historians whenever the topic arises. Many simply can’t imagine why I take the issue seriously or why it is important that they care what those outside the academy are writing on blogs, wikis and Facebook pages. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took a historian from outside the field of Civil War history to take this subject seriously.

Those of you who take the time to read the essay will recognize most of the players. Madsen-Brooks utilizes this blog as well as those authored by Brooks Simpson, Andy Hall, and Corey Meyer. You will also hear from my friend Connie Ward (a.k.a. Chastain), Ann DeWitt, and Dave Tatum. It’s a real circus.

I strongly encourage you to leave your comments below on any aspect of this essay to assist me further in thinking through these issues.

Crater Book Reviewed in Journal of American History

Crater Journal of American HistoryThe latest issue of the Journal of American History (June 2013) includes a review of my Crater book by Chad L. Williams, who teaches here in town at Brandeis University. This is a very fair review. I couldn’t be more pleased to see that Professor Williams highlighted the chapters on William Mahone, the Readjusters and local Virginia politics as constituting the most important contribution to the literature on Civil War memory. Williams is also the first reviewer to mention my blog since Jim Cullen’s review at History News Network last summer. Overall, the reviews have been very positive, which is incredibly gratifying.

Interest in the Battle of the Crater has become something of a cottage industry recently. Books on the July 30, 1864, clash between the Union army of the Potomac and the Confederate army of northern Virginia on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, have appeared from a diverse assortment of “historians,” ranging from Richard Slotkin to Newt Gingrich. The massive explosion (which created the crater and was intended to break Confederate defenses) and the subsequent disastrous Union assault mark two of the most spectacular and tragic moments of the Civil War. However, much of the renewed scholarly and popular interest in the battle has centered on the presence of African American troops and their slaughter at the hands of opposing Confederate soldiers—one of the worst racial massacres of the war. [click to continue…]

Can the Republican Party Reclaim Lincoln?

National Review LincolnNext month National Review editor, Rich Lowry, is publishing a book about Abraham Lincoln. Part of the project is an attempt to reclaim Lincoln from the extreme Libertarian Right of Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams, among others. In the most recent issue of NR Lowry offers a taste of his forthcoming book.

The anti-Lincoln critique is mostly, but not entirely, limited to a fringe. Yet it speaks to a longstanding ambivalence among conservatives about Lincoln. A few founding figures of this magazine were firmly in the anti-Lincoln camp. Libertarianism is rife with critics of Lincoln, among them Ron Paul and the denizens of the fever-swamp at LewRockwell.com. The Loyola University Maryland professor Thomas DiLorenzo has made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics. The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery. They are all united in their conviction that both in resisting secession and in the way he did it, Lincoln took American history on one of its great Wrong Turns.

Anyone familiar with mainstream academic work on Lincoln will find absolutely nothing new in this article.  It doesn’t take much for Lowry to dismantle the DiLorenzo-Williams interpretation of Lincoln because so little of it is actually built on a serious reading of the relevant history.  The humor of it all quickly fades. In fact, this article (and perhaps eve the book) has very little to do with Lincoln or the Civil War. Rather, Lowry is clearly worried about the current state and identity of the Republican Party. “A conservatism that rejects Lincoln,” writes Lowry “is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st-century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.” [click to continue…]

R.I.P. North and South Magazine (1997-2013)

North and SouthCan’t say that I am surprised by this news. After sixteen years Keith Poulter is calling it quits at North and South magazine. I still remember opening up the first issue back in 1997. At that time I was managing the periodicals section at Borders Books in Rockville, Maryland. At the time I was just beginning to read Civil War history seriously and I even tried my hands at writing a few book reviews for the Washington Times. I contacted Keith early on to see about writing book reviews for the magazine and he gave me the green light to contribute on a fairly regular basis. You can find a fair number of my book reviews in those early issues, which helped me quite a bit to begin to build up a resume and make new contacts.

For much of its history N&S was a quality publication, though now I understand that much of that had to do with the work of Terry Johnston, who eventually left and founded The Civil War Monitor magazine. For those of us looking for a bit more academic rigor North and South offered a wide range of topics from some of the leading historians along with footnotes. Who ever heard of such a thing in a glossy. I continue to use many of the articles in my Civil War courses. [click to continue…]

Mark Twain: Lost Cause Art Critic

Everett-B-D-Julio_XX_The-Last-Meeting-Of-Lee-And-Jackson-1864_XX_Museum-Of-The-Confederacy-Richmond-VirginiaWith the help of my book credits earned through Amazon’s affiliate program I recently purchased The Civil War and American Art. It’s incredible.  While I enjoy looking at art, I don’t spend nearly enough time reading about it. In the introduction I came across Everett B.D. Fabrino Julio’s The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson, which as many of you know is located at the Museum of the Confederacy. I did not know that Julio initially offered the painting to Lee himself as a gift, who politely refused. I mean, where would you put it given the painting’s dimensions.

For a time it was on public display in New Orleans, which is where Mark Twain viewed it. Here is his colorful review.

[I]n the Washington Artillery building…we saw…a fine oil-painting representing Stonewall Jackson’s last interview with General Lee. Both men are on horseback. Jackson has just ridden up, and is accosting Lee. The picture is very valuable, on account of the portraits, which are authentic. But like many another historical picture, it means nothing without its label. And one label will fit it as well as another:

First Interview between Lee and Jackson.

Last Interview between Lee and Jackson.

Jackson introducing himself to Lee.

Jackson Accepting Lee’s Invitation to Dinner.

Jackson Declining Lee’s Invitation to Dinner–with Thanks.

Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat.

Jackson Reporting a Great Victory.

Jackson Asking Lee for a Match.

It tells one story, and a sufficient one; for it says quite plainly and satisfactorily, “Here are Lee and Jackson together.” The artist would have made it tell that this is Lee and Jackson’s last interview if he could have done it. But he couldn’t, for there wasn’t any way to do it. A good legible label is usually worth, for information, a ton of significant attitude and expression in a historical picture.

Clearly, Twain’s brief stint in Confederate ranks did little for his respect for the Lost Cause. And for that we thank him.

What Should “Silent Sam” Say?

Silent Sam

The 100th anniversary of the dedication of “Silent Sam” on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has not surprisingly led to a renewed push to have it removed. These protests have been a regular occurrence in recent years as more people, both on and off campus, interpret both the war and historical context of the dedication through a racial lens. This time the president of the NC chapter of the NAACP is leading the charge.

“The reality is that Sam has never been silent,” state NAACP President William Barber told the crowd. “He speaks racism. He speaks hurt to women – particularly black women. And he continues just by his presence to attempt to justify the legacy of the religion of racism.”

One of those at the rally was 77-year-old Jerry Carr of Chapel Hill, a UNC student in the mid-1960s and 1970s.  “I was always irked by this statue,” Carr said. “It was always said that the war wasn’t about slavery – that it was about states’ rights. And that kind of squelched any discussion about it. It’s taken a long, long time to recognize the truth – that the war was about the preservation of slavery.”

Zaina Alsous, a 2013 UNC graduate and member of the Real Silent Sam Committee that helped organize the demonstration, said the group wants people to understand “the painful parts of our history, the part of UNC’s history where we expressed violent racial discrimination, and also to be critical of where we are today.”

Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I am sympathetic to the power of these monuments and the pain that they cause certain people. I’ve been consistent in my belief that regardless of whether the monument is removed or altered in some fashion or whether an interpretive marker is added is entirely up to the relevant parties. [click to continue…]

Common-place: List of Contributors

monkey and organ grinderYou may remember that Megan Kate Nelson and I are co-editing a special edition of Common-place on the Civil War Sesquicentennial, which should be published in early 2014.  We just finished getting together our list of contributors and it looks awesome. We’ve covered a great deal of ground from how the war is being taught in the classroom to interpretation in museums as well as how the war is being commemorated across the country and beyond. This issue is going to have a little bit for everyone interested in this important subject.

Here is our list of contributors as of today:

  • Chris Lese, Teaching Civil War Memory in the Classroom
  • John Hennessy, Public History and Memory at the NPS
  • Ari Kelman, Native Americans, the West and Civil War Memory
  • Frances Clarke, War Memory as a Global Phenomenon
  • Carrie Janney, commemoration and reconciliation
  • Matt Hulbert, memories of guerrilla warfare (Missouri)
  • Manisha Sinha, abolitionism and memory
  • Adam Arenson, on going back to the battlefield
  • Judy Giesberg on Emilie Davis and digital memory
  • Anne Marshall on Lincoln in Kentucky
  • Steve Berry—Introduction
  • Andrew Talkov–museums

Megan and I seem to be getting along like a monkey and an organ grinder. It’s still unclear as to which roles we are playing.